The Case for Ignoring the Jobs Records of GOP Candidates

The former governors in the race are being judged on a misleading metric

Jon Huntsman announcement - Shannon Stapleton Reuters - banner.jpg

Does it matter which of the possible Republican nominees for president presided over the most job creation when running a state government? That metric is sometimes cited as an argument in favor of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. National Review says Gary Johnson scored a job growth rate of 11.6 percent during his tenure in New Mexico and that John Huntsman did next best during his time running Utah. But what if governors actually don't have much impact on how many jobs are created? Or even if they do, would state-level success necessarily translate onto the national stage?

Take Gov. Perry. In a column at The Daily, Reihan Salam says that he deserves partial credit for economic growth in Texas, insofar as tort reform that he supported made the business climate more friendly. But confounding economic variables very much complicate things, Salam insists:

A bigger reason for Texas' success on the jobs front is that the state has a relatively healthy housing market. Texas effectively imposed steep minimum down payment requirements for home buyers in 1998, a policy that helped insulate Texas families from the worst of the housing bust. And while local governments in California and the Northeast tend to impose stringent regulations that limit the supply of housing, Texas has long taken a laissez-faire approach to local land use.

This has given Texas a huge affordability advantage that has attracted a large number of domestic migrants, including a large and growing number of entrepreneurs. This housing-driven affordability advantage is so big that Texas could afford to impose somewhat higher taxes and fees and still offer more bang for the buck than the big coastal cities.

That's one big problem with comparing jobs numbers: Every state has its confounding variables. And it's unlikely that journalists or voters are going to accurately assign credit or blame for them, especially since a useful comparison requires attributing the appropriate credit to everyone. Plus there's a huge time horizon problem. What if the best policy doesn't produce jobs immediately, but does produce them eventually, and in much greater numbers than a shorter term fix? It isn't as if it's uncommon for a politician to inherit the consequences of a predecessor's decision, or to saddle a successor with a problem that is more dire than it seemed when he left office.

Another problem with the jobs metric: success as a governor depends largely upon legislation signed or vetoed during one's tenure. What if a governor has an intransigent legislature through no fault of his own? What if he owes his tremendous success to personal relationships in the state that he can't rely on in Washington, D.C.? What if, like Gary Johnson, he vetoes bills aplenty when they're passed by the other political party? Love or hate Johnson's record, he amassed it largely through the veto mechanism. Elevated to the White House, but given a Republican rather than a Democratic legislature, would he be able to govern as successfully? Hard to say. A man's success operating in one political context isn't a reliable predictor of how he'll perform in another. See all the successful governors who performed poorly after attaining higher office.

Or ponder Jon Huntsman. He governed in Utah, a singular state where the business climate and cultural norms can't easily be separated. Surely there are policies that work there, but would fail elsewhere. Or that improve a state economy even though they don't scale up nationally.

It's tempting to think that a candidate's record on jobs as a governor tells us something about how effectively he'd perform in the White House. In fact, however, the metric is as likely to lead us astray. That's frustrating. It seems as though, having this data, we ought to use it. We're bad at accepting that some comparisons are so hard to get right that we're better off ignoring them entirely.

Image credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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